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Ditch DTV coupons, promote broadband? No and yes…

June 11th, 2007

A novel alternative to the converter-box coupon subsidy, from Nolan Bowie at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:

A better solution would be for Congress to provide subsidies in the form of means-tested “digital TV credits” to enable low-income families to purchase basic digital TV-video offerings from a multi-channel video service provider, whether that be a phone company or cable TV or satellite TV service. Congress could then make better and more efficient uses of the public airwaves by reallocating much of the television broadcasting spectrum for unlicensed broadband. This would help ensure universal access to high-speed broadband connectivity to the Internet and alternative forms of information, news, and entertainment.

Pay TV subsidies? I don’t think so. At $80, two digital TV adapter coupons enable a viewing household to receive several more years of broadcast programming. The same amount buys perhaps a month or two of cable or DirecTV (assuming you can wangle a free-installation deal).

He muffs the coupon program’s details and the distinctions between HDTV and SDTV. Nonetheless, Bowie’s proposal, while tardy and, let’s face it, dead on arrival, raises relevant issues. A drive to assure fast, cheap, network-neutral broadband access for all Americans would benefit the nation more than outdated federal policies (including mandated cable carriage) that indirectly subsidize TV broadcasters.

Bowie frets that DTV multicasting will exacerbate media-ownership concentration:

Once the transition into digital is completed, a single firm like Clear Channel or General Electric could, by maximizing the number of radio and TV channels ultimately have as many as 58-100 broadcast voices in the same community by compressing their digital frequencies.

Media concentration remains a huge problem, but multicasting doesn’t necessarily make it any worse (especially if it merely subdivides an already concentrated audience—which would amount to a small improvement, actually). But if Kevin Martin succeeds in greasing the wheels for multicast must-carry, smaller stations with fewer resources could lose audience share to stronger competitors who can program multicast channels more efficiently.

In the unlikely event that broadcasters find a way to offer multicast fare compelling enough to capture a meaningful audience, they might even win back some of the pay-TV audience. The way things are going now, however, I don’t think we’re heading into a new era of broadcast dominance. The more likely scenario is an acceleration of audience splintering, continued erosion of broadcast audiences, and eventual pleas from station owners for fresh forms of government help as smaller stations struggle for survival in an overchanneled era. The amount of spectrum dedicated to over-the-air television in the U.S. may actually be excessive, as Bowie contends.

Rather than concocting new schemes for bolstering broadcast hegemony, the FCC must come to terms with the changing communications landscape. Martin should put broadcasters on notice: they face a reinvent-or-die scenario, and now is the time—if it is not, in fact, already too late—to reimagine their future.

More on the future of TV:
The system is broken
What’s wrong with the FCC?
Will TV’s new rules serve big players or public?

• Link: Boston Globe

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